It’s named Golden Gate, after the strait over which the bridge stretches, though it’s about a mile away from the bridge. Its name honors the shimmering beauty at sunset, the way the champagne light twinkles on the mist, not the shimmering beauty scraped from the earth — gold wasn’t discovered until a few years after the strait was named. The park stretches from the beach, where the golden mist and fog emanates, about halfway to downtown, about 3 miles. It’s over 1000 acres, with paths and sidewalks winding throughout. I’ve roamed almost all of them.
The beach end is usually quiet, aside from the bursts of the waves and the whipping salty winds. Just a few blocks in, around 41st Ave, there’s a small lake, encircled by a clean white sidewalk where my husband hid a ring in my pocket before he was my husband. He waited for 45 minutes until I found it, and I remember feeling weirdly giddy and awkward with him that day, despite more than a decade of relationship. A gopher snapped the grasses next to our feet and observed us in our joy, while wrens, peeping congratulations, popped around in a cave of knobby, tangled branches half sunk in the water. As the sun dropped away, silhouettes of bats fluttered against the soft blue evening, no doubt dusting a magic on our marriage.
That was years ago, though we go back to check our spot every so often. Now, the perimeter of the lake is populated by a herd of at least fifteen not-so-wild raccoons who roam in the daytime — they are traditionally nocturnal animals. Around that same area, I once saw a white chicken and rooster there, sitting in a pine tree together. The rooster was crowing, sounding a dinner bell, as an old Asian lady tossed bagfulls of bread crusts to the ever-appearing raccoons. No one seemed to think any of this was odd.
If you follow the sidewalk just south of the lake, there is the field where we take the dogs to run. We search for a spot in the sun, a mud-free place to settle for a few minutes while we watch our galloping horse of a dog outrun our wiggly, herding puppy. Until they both galavant into the woods, down a vague path. Then we heave ourselves from our grassy seats and chase them through the shady underbrush trying not to get sand in our shoes, trying not to disturb the occasional homeless person, as we crush leaves and leap over fallen pines and eucalyptus.
After a while it gets cold, hidden from the sun, so we tumble out, dogs finally leashed by the fly fishing ponds, where you can once again stand flat on the sidewalk. The ponds are large, square cement pools, angled like beaches at the edges so old men can wade in, waterproofed to their chests as they lasso long lines over their heads. I have seen no fish through the dense, dark green water, but a sign says these strange pools are stocked. We never stay here for long; without plastic overalls, you are a pariah.
Such oddities genuinely exist in this municipal wonderland. There’s also a bison paddock which I only ever came across the time we rented Segways with our friend Steve. We zipped like annoying tourists along the sidewalks and in the bike lanes, hoping not to fly off as we teetered over cracked cement and rumbly asphalt. It was my husband’s birthday, and Steve had brought chalky, pastel-colored rice crispy treats made with weed in celebration. These were authentic San Francisco edibles, procured from some guy on Haight Street. New to us, we gave them a try. I remember feeling distant from my legs, exhausted afterward, and very little else. But, I do remember the bison with their mop-like fur and enormous cow noses, chewing steadily next to their barn as we marveled through the chainlink from our contraptions.
The science museum also lives in the park. We went with Eva and Schubert to see a lecture on mushrooms. Every Thursday, they have an event for adults that includes activities like drinking and making art from a mushroom cap. On these nights, cars line the dark park streets like teeth, and people trickle along the unlit paths in clumps, catching up on each others lives, flickering their iPhone lights ahead of them. Once inside, there’s plenty of space to fit us all. We feel a conditioned sense of sneakiness at being allowed to run loose here without supervision. But I only went the once. We had expensive screwdrivers made with cheap ingredients, listened to someone talk about mycelium networks in the dirt and their use in composting, and wandered through the aquarium, where grumpy fish tried to sleep, despite the disco-like atmosphere.
Not far from there is the rose garden, which consists of about 12 rows of thorny green bushes, not in bloom in spring, and an asphalt path where people bike and wander past the benches that face the imaginary flowers. I was reading on one of those benches just last week, and a squirrel came to see what food I had. She climbed on my backpack and found a six-month-old bag of nuts. She waited on top of my backpack, leaning forward as I unzipped the plastic bag and offered a handful. At first, she stared at me with her big black button eyes as she grabbed up what she could before running away to munch. But after a while, she just came over to my hand, pressing my fingers further open with her cool paws, keeping her claws clear of my skin as she gathered up armloads of nuts and took them to be buried under the trees. A guy cycled past on the path and yelled, “Don’t feed wild animals,” but I defied him.
I ran on the same path the day I miscarried. I couldn’t distinguish what pain was emotional from that which was physical. I just ran. Past the playground, past the AIDS memorial, and the Lily Pond. The green leaves reached out as I passed. I remember a sweet soft breeze, just the right temperature. There weren’t many people out that day. Those sidewalks were almost completely mine.
Like veins, the paths flow from one end to the other, branching off to innervate vital organs, bringing good and bad and whatever gets into the system. Some are wide and others barely noticeable, but their existence is evidence that someone has walked there before. They have been carrying life through this park for almost 150 years and will no doubt continue for 150 more.